As many of you probably already know, I am now back in Minnesota, having returned to the U.S. at the end of March. Returning home from Germany earlier than planned has been one of the hardest things I have ever done – one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make. But like so many of us right now, COVID-19 has completely changed the landscape of my plans!
Things had been fairly uncertain for me in Germany since mid-March; Fulbright sent out several emails in a row, “strongly urging” students to return home. However, up until just before I actually left, I was quite committed to remaining in Germany. I was still working in my lab, I had wonderful roommates I looked forward to coming home to, I had health insurance and a generally stable situation. I was disappointed about having to cancel a planned trip to Paris, and having two conferences in Berlin (one in March, one in May) canceled, but I was looking forward to embracing the life I had made for myself in Bonn.
But things in these last days of March were changing quickly. On Thursday, March 19th, I went to the lab, not knowing it would be my last day there. (Friday I had planned to work from home.) Thursday evening I heard that the State Department had issued a Level Four travel warning, worldwide. Unsure what that might mean for me and my Fulbright status, I did not sleep well. The next morning I tried to be calm, to live as normal – but I had a sense of foreboding. I went running, had breakfast, started rearranging the couches with two of my housemates to set us up to watch a movie – and then I saw a new email from Fulbright. Excusing myself, I read it. I called a fellow Fulbrighter to chat briefly. I called my parents. And within two hours I had a flight booked home.
I think one of the most challenging things in the midst of this all is that I was not technically forced home. Unlike the Fulbright programs in some countries, Fulbright Germany did not absolutely mandate U.S. students to return home. And I genuinely appreciate that; some students do not have health insurance in the U.S., or a place to stay, or have various other good reasons for not returning to the U.S. The Commission did make it clear that anyone who stayed needed to be prepared to stay indefinitely – to have plans for how they would secure health insurance and income should they be forced to stay past their Fulbright grant period. I did not have any way to do this, and as I am planning to apply to medical school this fall, the idea of potentially not being able to get home when I wanted/planned/needed to was and increasing source of stress… and to some extent was also seeming increasingly likely. Further influencing my decision was the fact that Fulbright would be shutting down its offices internationally, meaning I would no longer have their support. However, the fact that it was, in actuality, my choice, made the decision and its subsequent consequences a bit harder to bear, and saddled me with a bit more inner turmoil in the subsequent days and weeks as I considered the what ifs… should I/could I have stayed? The reality is, there was and is so much uncertainty, that a clear or certain decision was difficult to make. That said, to some extent the extreme uncertainty is precisely what made it seem so clear that it was time for me to return home.
Back to Friday: I now had a ticket home… and it was leaving in less than thirty-six hours. Agh! I had so many things running through my head – so many things I needed to do! – and was experiencing so many different emotions. Yet more than anything else I really wanted to enjoy these last few hours in Bonn, enjoy my last moments with the housemates I had grown so fond of. And so I went downstairs, told my housemates about the monumental shift in my plans – that I was going home – and then I did my best to set aside my worries and to-do lists and grief, and truly enjoy these last moments.
We watched a movie, we played games, we made one last trip to the grocery store together, we baked American chocolate chip cookies. That night after the others went to bed I went into action mode; I organized and sorted, recycled old papers, wrote thank-you notes, carried items to be left behind to a donation receptacle (conveniently located just across the street!). I packed, weighed suitcases, and then repacked and reweighed (approximately twelve or forty times more). Around 3 or 4 am, mostly packed, I grabbed some shut-eye. The next day (which is to say a few hours later), I continued doing my best to savor these last moments. I enjoyed time in the sunshine and spring weather with Felix up on the roof, enjoyed curry made by Martin, and that evening we all played games and shared tearful good-byes and exchanged little gifts. The next morning, around 5 am, Felix and Martin walked me to the train station, we said good-bye, and off I went.
After quarantining at a friend’s cabin with my sister, I returned home, where I have now been for the last few weeks. It’s still strange. I miss my housemates, my lab, the German language, Bonn. I’m still mourning the time I thought I had, the plans I left behind. At points I can still hardly believe all that has changed! But I am beginning to get used to the new outlook, and to try to make new plans, however tentative they might be. Over the last few weeks I have made three cookie skillets for my family – and a few healthier dishes as well! I completed one 3000 puzzle with my sister, took part in a puzzle derby, and am now working on the second half of an 18,000-piece puzzle I started a few years ago. I signed up for a marathon, and have started easing into training. I’m working for Kaplan again, and have med school apps to keep me busy. I’ve been enjoying lots of walks with my family, and playing piano duets with my sister. And perhaps most of all, I have been reading! In honor of that fact, I’d like to conclude this blog post with a brief round-up of a few of the books I most recently completed (in no particular order): Sapiens, Lolita, American Jezebel, and Washington Black.
Sapiens by Harare was a suggestion from a friend that I requested months ago on my Kindle. Boy, was it worth the wait! As its subtitle suggests, this book essentially covers the entire history of humankind – in brief. Providing interesting perspectives on how it is that humans came to dominate, how very non-inevitable much of history has been, and how – for better or for worse – we arrived where we are today, this is a thoroughly thought-provoking book. Were hunter-gatherers happier than we are? What might have happened if Constantine didn’t convert? How did imperialism and capitalism contribute to the development of our interdependent world of today? These are just a few of the questions Sapiens urges readers to consider. While they may not have definite answers, they are intriguing and – I think – worthwhile questions to consider, particularly as we contemplate the future of our species and our world.
Lolita is a classic I recently finished. I primarily had this on my list because I read and very much enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran several years ago, and figured it would be a good idea to read the book that led to that book’s creation! First of all, I must say that Lolita is not your typical book, nor even your typical classic; after all, the protagonist is a pedophile. Still, before you scoff or turn away, it is a classic for a reason. Despite its controversial subject material, the book is a fascinating and enjoyable read. Nabokov’s style is absolutely iconic, riddled with word play, sardonic observations of American culture, and profuse references to other literary works. Honestly, my first thought when I finished the book was that I needed to read about twelve other books – in order to better understand Nabokov’s references and catch more of his witticisms – and then reread Lolita! (only maybe this time an annotated version…) In any case, it is an interesting and thought-provoking read, despite, or in some cases because of, the contentious character of Humbert.
With all the extra time on my hands right now, I suggested to my grandfather that we choose a book to read together and discuss – and he suggested American Jezebel, by Eva LaPlante. A fascinating portrait of the life of Anne Hutchinson, a woman ahead of her time, this book also introduces the reader to the landscape of early America. At my grandfather’s suggestion, I did a bit of research on my own to learn about the background of Anne’s story – the English Civil War, the reformation, and the journey that brought Puritans to America. A strong and confident female leader when such a phenomenon was rare, indeed, Anne Hutchinson was admired by many, and feared by many. Tracing her dramatic trial and eventual expulsion from Massachusetts, this books portrays Anne as the full and varied character she was; a mother, midwife theologian, political leader. While it touches on her theological views, LaPlante avoids getting bogged down or losing the reader’s interest. Without needlessly idolizing her, LaPlante introduces the reader to an important character of early America – what one might even call a “founding mother.”
Washington Black was an interesting and fairly quick read. An original take on a story of slavery and its consequences, this novel follows the tale of one slave, and how he manages to gain freedom through the assistance of his master’s eccentric scientist of a brother. Nurtured by the interest of one white man, Washington blossoms artistically and intellectually. Yet not everything is rosy; Washington must grapple with betrayal, fear, and loneliness, even as his story is graced by friendship, ambition, and love. In order to move on, to have true freedom, Washington must come to terms with his story, with all of its beauty, ugliness, and shades in between.
I hope you are all doing well – or as well as can be expected in these crazy times. And if you have any book suggestions for me as I keep reading up a storm, feel free to make a contribution in the comments!